A prologue first to what I’m going to say about “academic bullying”.
Considering that the word is used so broadly to discuss a wide range of procedures, practices, attitudes, and ideological positions, maybe we need a better term than “neoliberalism”. And yet, there’s often a real connection between everything referred to in that wide range, so perhaps no other word will serve us better.
I understand perfectly well, for example, how a whole series of workplace rules, practices and norms that have become common across the economy, including in academia, are connected by some common propositions or principles even when they seem ostensibly to be concerned with different issues. Among the connections are:
1) Get as much labor from workers as you can, in part by decomposing some of the barriers between civic life, home life and work life.
2) Get as much labor for free from workers as you can, in part by taking advantage of older cultures of professionalism and civic obligation.
3) Make transparency a one-way street: encourage (or compel) workers to make as much of their working lives as can be imagined visible to and recorded by management or administration, but strongly restrict the ability of workers to get a transparent accounting of what happens with the information they share or give.
4) Shift workers into contractor positions or other workplace forms that reduce or eliminate the responsibility of employers to provide benefits or any long-term commitments to those workers.
5) Treat employees as psychological/economic models or objects rather than as reasoning citizens; privilege managerial approaches that nudge, manipulate, incentivize, and placate employees rather than engage with them in complex, honest terms.
I could go on, and I have in past blog entries.
Another thing I’ve said before, however, is that the answer to neoliberal reworkings of work practices is not to fight back by reducing professional or other labor participation to the market terms that neoliberalism exalts. Meaning if we think there is such a thing as professionalism, and that we want to defend it (or restore it) in the face of neoliberal reworkings, we shouldn’t get involved in just trying to get neoliberalism to pay people off to a greater degree. It’s ridiculous, for example, that current for-profit academic publishers continue to not only rely on a massive amount of free labor that is not only provided by academics but is very nearly required of them in order to have a hope of accessing a tenure-track position and then retaining it. But the answer is not to compel those publishers to pay us some small share of the value we’re producing. It is to take all the value we produce and shift it to a non-profit consortial structure that resides within our professional worlds.
I ache sometimes in academic life because this should be joyous work, and for all that we could fulminate about administrations and neoliberalism and public funding, the possibility of passion and joy, of mission and meaning, still seem graspable. Those possibilities still seem something that could suffuse academic labor everywhere: there is nothing inevitable or required about the spread of grossly exploitative adjunct teaching in most of academia.
So here we come to the problem: neoliberalism sometimes takes hold because we ourselves, with at least some power over our world, can’t manage to imaginatively and fulsomely inhabit the alternative cultures and processes of academic labor that are at least possible. Our own sociality in faculty communities often compresses that space of better possibility from the other direction of neoliberal rules and procedures, and almost nothing humane is left in between.
Yes, we can adopt a kind of neo-Stoical response and control what we individually can control: ourselves. To be passionate and joyful and encouraging and supportive ourselves, and let the rest fall as it must. To demonstrate rather than remonstrate. This is the weakness of some calls to get away from the negativity of “critique”–they end up an example of what they hope to proscribe, a critique of critique. We would be better off showing rather than telling, better off doing than complaining about what other people do. The problem is that all professions are very much defined by their shared ethos, their common structures of collaboration and governance. A novelist or artist or entrepreneur or political consultant often operates in a workplace structure that translates individual sensibility into the surrounding environment. An academic who just does their own thing, on the other hand, is likely to feel the strong tug of faculty governance or administrative oversight in formal terms. More importantly, that kind of neo-Stoicism takes a kind of masterful psychological disposition of some kind: a mind armored against the world, a mind with a detached openness to it all, or a kind of blithe self-regard that is undented by any negativity. (In which case, is probably part of the problem rather than the solution.) Some of us can’t manage it at all, and some of us lose the discipline required over time. Some of us have had the possibility of that insulation stripped from us before we ever started by racial discrimination, by gender discrimination, by other forms of structured bias.
So, prologue over: this is where academic bullying comes in. This research on academic bullying described in the Chronicle of Higher Education will probably surprise no one, but it’s valuable. Bullying may in some sense be almost the wrong word for what I suspect most of the respondents in the study were thinking about. That conjures up imagines of a tough kid demanding lunch money, or a crowd yelling mockery at a crying child. That may be how it feels at times in academia, but the circumstances and content are different. Incivility is another word the researchers used, for a slightly different range of interactions, and that too may not entirely get at what I suspect people were reporting. This is more about pervasive negativity, about how every process and decision, however minor, is mysteriously made difficult and contentious, about how and when ‘standards’ are enforced or demanded, about how blame gets assigned. About how people get trivialized and discouraged, often through indirect, unreportable interactions. Perhaps not even by things said directly to them, but by an invisible network of statements in the social infrastructure around them.
The research described in the article notes that the most common category of reports involve faculty who are tenured (both victim and perpetrator), usually between a very senior faculty member and an associate or younger full professor. The perpetrators are evenly men and women; so are the victims.
We saw some of this at Swarthmore in the faculty-specific results of a campus-climate survey from a while back. Largely the response to the results has focused on student life and on the domain of harm that in some sense we know the most about and understand the best, along lines of race, gender and sexuality. But this wider universe is genuinely harder to grapple with. I don’t have any particularly good ideas myself about it.
Still, it sticks with me. I continue to be troubled by what the faculty respondents showed (I think we had about a 40-45% response rate, if I remember correctly, so there’s a small numbers problem here), which is that a very significant number of people said that they had been bullied or treated poorly by faculty colleagues, that politics, scholarship and faculty governance issues were one of the major instigating reasons. But also very strongly–nearly unanimously, if I’m remembering the results–the faculty respondents also said that there’s nothing that can be done about it and that they especially did not want administrative intervention. That we’re resigned to it.
That feels really screwed up to me. But the research reported in the Chronicle suggests we may be typical. I’ve been struck in both formal assessments and informal visits and conversations on social media where I’ve looked into other campus cultures that this is what a lot of faculty experience–that sense that there’s a small number of people who are cunningly abusive, who understand perfectly well what the red lines are and avoid them carefully, but who are constantly picking away at colleagues, who make most collective work difficult, who passive-aggress others, and who know how to mobilize a defensive screen if anyone gets upset with it.
I keep coming back myself to a moment from a few years back. It was hearing a senior colleague in another department disparage a tenured but more junior colleague about that person’s scholarly productivity. I realized that if this was being said to me, casually, it was likely being said by this person regularly: I am not particularly a confidant of the disparager, and the remark was as conversational as “hey, nice weather today”. I also realized that not many people would know what I know: that the person doing the disparaging is less productive as a scholar than the person being disparaged; that the person being disparaged does amazing teaching and service work; that the person doing the disparaging has not read nor is actually interested in the work of the disparaged person despite the fact that they’re in the same discipline. So here you have someone trying to knock down another person’s reputation over something that they don’t even care about–it’s not as if the complaining person just can’t wait to read more scholarship by the targeted person, or values what that colleague says as a scholar and intellectual.
The longer I’m in academia, the more I am aware of how much of this kind of activity is swirling around me, generated by a small number of people who know they’re never in danger of being confronted about it. It’s never worth picking a fight over in the sense that you can’t stop it–it’s legitimate expression, in some sense–and all you’ll do is become a target of the same sabotage, if you aren’t already. But it kills the joy and excitement that should crackle through our halls, the delight we should be taking in the thinking and teaching of others. That’s the issue, in the end: that we need some signs of that better world in order to stand against the onset of worse and worse ones.